28 May 2006

Film aims to teach the world about our troubled history

Sunday Business Post

By Tom McGurk
28 May 2006

There will soon be a new film showing here in Ireland that may reawaken a lot of historical arguments.

The film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is British film director Ken Loach’s take on the nation-defining events of the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.

In many ways, this is the film that we have been awaiting for over 30 years - ever since the collapse of the partition settlement made during the film’s period brought the return of direct intervention in the North by London.

Loach is probably the most outstanding historical and alternative film director of his generation. His films include Kes, Land and Freedom(about the Spanish Civil War), Hidden Agenda (about British intelligence undercover activities in the North) and Black Jack.

Loach first showed his alternative credentials in 1975 with a remarkable drama series entitled Days of Hope for the BBC.

Produced by Tony Garnett - another of the radical tradition in the British film industry - the series told the story of an English family through the momentous events of 1914 to 1926.

It began with their involvement in the First World War, then took in the War of Independence in Ireland and finally back to the General Strike in Britain.

As committed socialists, Loach and Garnett saw this era as the defining moment in the abandonment of the working class by the newly emerging British Labour party.

In particular, the series delved into British class relationships and, most poignantly, the intersections between British international imperialism and native socialism. In the Irish section of the film, Loach depicted British working-class squaddies fighting Irish working-class volunteers.

In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach is returning to territory he first examined in Days of Hope, the intersection between imperial ambitions and native rights.

Interestingly, at the Cannes film festival, Loach insisted that the story of Ireland’s War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were as much a part of British history as Irish history. Of course, they are, though it’s not often seen from that perspective.

Given that Loach has – uniquely as a British artist with a socialist perspective - sought to examine the wider impact of Britain’s imperial culture on its working class history, its oldest colonial relationship, that with Ireland, is seminal.

Loach has been revolutionary in aesthetics, as well as in his politics.

From the beginning of his film career, he set himself solidly against the conventional practices of the industry, making films that beautifully detailed ordinary lives, seeing drama in the most mundane things and searching for socialist heroes in diverse places.

Within the industry, his film-making methods have been radical; Loach has never seen the script as an end-all and he has experimented successfully with using amateur actors alongside professionals.

His experiment with amateurs has given his films a gritty realism; for example, were he shooting in, say, Sheffield, he would audition local drama groups to find some of the players.

Actors in Loach films never know the ending and, since he also shoots sequentially, they are on a discovery process, like the audience, as the film progresses.

He has also been known to shoot sequences on a pure scenario basis, abandoning pre-written scripts. Having introduced the actors to where the scene is leading, he then leaves them to improvise themselves.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley - shot on location in west Cork - features rising Irish star Cillian Murphy. Given that Murphy has always admired Loach, this is a successful film pairing. The story is loosely based on the life of Ernie O’Malley, the Republican revolutionary whose remarkable books On Another Man’s Wound and The Singing Flame remain the great classics of the Irish revolutionary era. O’Malley, in his introduction to On Another Man’s Wound, described the War of Independence as ‘‘the story of a risen people taking on an empire’’.

O’Malley joined the Volunteers when he was a medical student and fought right through the independence struggle to the end of the Civil War. In fact, he was the last republican prisoner to be released from the Curragh at the end of the Civil War. He then went into exile, travelling the world.

Incidentally, Richard English has written a superb study of O’Malley entitled Ernie O’Malley - IRA Intellectual.

Loach’s film tells the story of two brothers from west Cork who fight through the War of Independence together but, after the Treaty is signed, find themselves on opposite sides in the Civil War.

The themes examined include military occupation, colonisation, the notion of the parish against the empire and, in the end, the bottomless debate about the Treaty. I suspect that no cinema audience will have seen British troops portrayed as Loach portrays them, with the film documenting the full terror of the Black and Tans.

But, as Loach said at Cannes, it is not an anti-British film, but an examination of occupation and colonisation. ‘‘There are always armies of occupation somewhere in the world being resisted by the people they are occupying,” he said.

‘‘I don’t need to tell anyone here where the British now - unfortunately forcefully and illegally - have an army of occupation.

“It’s also a story about extraordinary comradeship and heroism and a tragic conflict within that story.

‘‘It seemed to us a story that in the end we could not avoid.”

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